I was thrilled in my college and early professional years when, along with children’s theater, puppetry became part of mainstream entertainment. Remember small and brilliant films like Being John Malkovich directed by Spike Jonze, and Heavenly Creatures by Peter Jackson? Around the same time another amazing director Julie Taymor came out of the woodwork. She made indie films like Shakespeare’s Titus, and one of my favorite films of all time Frida. On Broadway she directed The Green Bird, and her biggest credit, something we can all identify with, The Lion King. Don’t let me lead you astray most of these aren’t for children. The reason I do mention all of this, is because the potential of puppetry as a serious art form, and its connections to dance and movement, became clear to me back then.
I am one of those kooky artists who believe one can find beautiful movement in the most mundane of places. Objects and props can dance, like leaves falling from a tree and a ball rolling down a hallway. Someone walking down the street is dance. I’ve made work where the choreography was generated from driving a stick shift and brushing your teeth. I love the idea of a puppeteer silently dancing in the dark to make magic happen on stage. So when I was presented with a show at the Center for Puppetry Arts, I put both children in my pockets and I went.
I’ve been to the center once before to see Cinderella Della Circus, and fell in love with the place. The show was great and will be back by popular demand this season. The galleries were filled with Jim Henson, international puppets, crafts and a nice gift shop. It’s a very nice way for the whole family to spend an afternoon.
On this trip we saw a bilingual version of Beauty and the Beast adapted and directed by Jon Ludwig, script by Luis R. Hernandez. At first I was a bit worried, not being a Spanish speaker, that the story might be hard to navigate through. I was wrong. It was clear as a bell to the point that I forgot that two languages were being spoken.
When we entered the theater we saw that the stage is split. Stage left was set up like a junk yard and stage right was set up like a forest with a giant tree and the infamous rose garden. At the beginning of the show, a real man appeared and found a book of fairy tales, which he tossed away again among the trash. The book was rediscovered by our narrators, an alley cat and a couple of mice. As they commenced to read the story, some laundry on a line came to life. Belle was built from the trash pile. Her torso was a blouse, her face and neck were made from a mop and she had an umbrella skirt. We later learned that the characters in this story were portrayed by found-object puppets. The play was chock-full of them. The antagonist was made from a stiff broom and a couple of fancy purses. Her son was constructed from a potato sack, big gloves and an earflap hat. The Beast was also built from a giant mop, a large men’s tunic and some deer antlers. This is not to mention the animation of all the furniture, instruments and flowers. Even the tree and a flamenco flamingo came to life.
The story moved fluidly from one scene to another, complete with creative references to Lady and the Tramp and Pee Wee’s Playhouse. In one notable transition there was a great slow motion chase scene after Mama picked the rose for the first time.
As a dancer there was one particular scene that captured my heart. As Beauty got comfortable in the Beast’s castle, she started to explore by gracefully dancing through three empty painting frames. Not only was this great usage of a prop, but they used it to the fullest. The scene couldn’t have lasted more than 45 seconds, but its image stayed with me throughout my dreams.
As if you couldn’t guess, we had a wonderful time. After the show we went to the third floor and created Alley Cat puppets of our very own. I think my girls loved this as much as the performance. So if you want a fun afternoon out with the children that is also a feast for adult senses as well, check this show out. It runs through May 29, 2011. You can find the Center for Puppetry Arts online at www.puppet.org or by phone at 404.873.3391. While you are there make your plans for the rest of the season.